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Mandatory prison sentences don’t work - We need a real cure for the epidemic of violent crime

4 min read

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Ed Davey MP writes as the Offensive Weapons Bill completes its passage through parliament. He calls for extra investment in policing and adoption of a public health approach, that tackles the root causes of violent crime.

Four years ago, in response to high-profile knife attacks, backbench Conservatives proposed a new law: mandatory prison sentences for those caught carrying a knife for the second time. It sounded tough, and MPs spoke of “sending a message” to stop people carrying knives. 

But, as the Liberal Democrats argued at the time, it did nothing to help solve the problem of knife crime. To tackle the serious problem of knife crime, Liberal Democrats want more community police, more youth services and a new “public health” approach, not headline-grabbing pretence at action. So we voted against the new law, on the grounds that judges should have the discretion to consider all the details of the case and impose the most appropriate sentence. That might mean sending someone to prison, but judges should not be forced to do so if there’s a better option in a particular case.

Despite our opposition, the law was passed. Labour joined with the Conservatives to impose these mandatory sentences for carrying knives. Parliament sent out its “message”. Yet it hasn’t worked.

Knife crime has soared. The number of fatal stabbings in England and Wales is up by 43% since 2015. Assaults with a knife are up by the same amount. And robberies using knives have increased by 67%. 

Meanwhile, more than 6,700 people have been sentenced to prison under the new law since it came into force in 2015.  Given that prison costs an average of £3,000 a month per person , and these 6,700 people were sentenced for an average of 7.5 months , that’s a total of £150 million spent putting people in prison who might not need to be there. That’s £150 million that could have been available for more community police, more youth workers and more effective policies, based on evidence. 

Fortunately, as this epidemic of violent crime has spread, more and more people have realised that an ever-growing prison population isn’t the answer. The Government’s own analysis shows that people given community sentences are less likely to reoffend than those sentences to prison for less than a year.  Conservative Justice Secretary David Gauke said recently that short sentences should be a “last resort” and used only “where absolutely appropriate”. 

Yet – totally inconsistently – the Government is now trying to bring in more mandatory prison sentences, this time for a second offence of carrying acid.

As with knives, there is no doubt that acid is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. According to Government figures, there were 504 acid attacks in 2016-17, compared to 183 in 2012-13.  But, as with knives, taking the decision on prison sentences away from judges who see the facts of the case isn’t the solution.

Liberal Democrats demand better. Instead of ruining lives and wasting money on mandatory sentences, we need real solutions that actually prevent violent crime.

First, we must invest far more in our police. Unnecessary Conservative cuts mean that there are 4,800 fewer officers on the streets today than there were in 2015 . The Home Office’s own analysis states that this has “likely contributed” to the rise in serious violent crime,  yet the Conservatives have more cuts on the way.  The Liberal Democrats would halt those cuts and give forces an extra £300 million a year to recruit more officers and restore the community policing that is so important for preventing crime.

And we must also change the way we think about violent crime. Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, established by Strathclyde Police in 2005, has pioneered a new approach that treats violent crime as a public health issue.  As with any disease, treatment begins by diagnosing the problem and understanding its causes. Addressing those causes requires not only the police, but also health professionals, social workers and teachers, working closely together to stop more people being infected by the disease.

This public health approach has proven remarkably successful. Violent crime in Scotland has halved over the past decade.  In Glasgow, the number of hospital admissions for stabbings has fallen by 62%.  London is now seeking to replicate that success with its own Violence Reduction Unit – something the Liberal Democrats have been advocating for years. 

This is how the Government should be combatting the rise in serious violence: investing in the police and adopting a public health approach that tackles the root causes. Not by imposing more mandatory prison sentences that tie judges’ hands and are, in reality, just a pretence that the Government is doing something.

Rt Hon Sir Edward Davey is the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson and the MP for Kingston and Surbiton

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